Expansive Poetry & Music Online Essay

essay by
Joan Malerba-Foran

Before I matriculated into a creative writing program, I was borderline prolific and always terribly sincere. Now my fingers have a version of being tongue-tied, and I feel like a fraud whenever I’m referred to as a poet or writer. I'm not saying that my writing ability is ruined. The problem is, and was, with my thinking. When it came time to declare my major I made a decision based on the needs of my ego. I understand that now. A degree in creative writing seemed to carry status and validation of talent—Hark! I am creative enough to have earned this degree. Maybe I’ll get a Master of Workshop next, followed by a Doctorate of Inspiration. Seriously, though, I was filled with self-doubt. Although I had maturity and its handmaiden experience, intelligence and its partner curiosity, I lacked formal instruction. Ironically, it was a series of readings in my course that has led me to the position I hold today, which is that creative writing is not a profession; it is an approach. Even as I type these words the keys click like hollowed-out eggs, ready to fracture under my finger tips. I’m fragile right now, since I’ve another year before I receive my BA and it's disheartening to be slouching toward a mirage. The anticipation I felt upon being released from stay-at-home-mom status to get my college degree has been replaced with apprehension.

My apprehension began in a class on realism. I did a term paper on William Dean Howells and his influence as a writer and editor. I learned that Howells had a personal investment (read that as gender issues) in taking the feminine art of letter writing and making it masculine; in other words, a paid profession manned by men. The history that led up to the successful appropriation of the "feminine art" made me squirm a little, but not much. I was just the innocent recipient of history’s bile. It did give me pause, though, because visions of money lined the secret closet where I hung my writing aspirations. The following semester I took a course on modernism and read T. S. Eliot’s essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent." Eliot’s ideas caused a philosophical shift in me. Slow down here, for it’s important to understand the importance of that statement. The only other philosophical shift I’ve had was when I was twelve and it began with a complaint to Sister Joseph. I’d heard someone call the Garden of Eden "a cool story." Catholic hormones surging, I’d wished that child a brief spell in hell and tracked down Sister to confirm his reservation. Sister listened and replied, "It is a wonderful story. One that carries a tremendous lesson for us all." I clutched her black skirt. "No," I insisted. "It’s not a story. It’s true." She replied, "The Garden is our attempt at explaining our imperfect condition of Original Sin." Her parting words left me with my first taste of cynicism.

Eliot’s essay produced a similar reaction. I’d stumbled against what appeared to be another big lie and I needed to make sense of my world. I was in a prestigious college with a high GPA. My writing was being fostered, challenged, mentored, and workshopped. I had every opportunity the college could create to express my creativity. Yet an essay from one of the great minds of our time claimed that the unique, also called talent, is of little importance. Tradition is what carries value, and should inform every poet/writer’s work.

[Tradition] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense… and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely from his own generation in his bones, but with the feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.
Art must have meaning grounded in the symbols and values forming the culture. Symbols are not produced in a vacuum. They have profound—even if unconscious—historical significance. It was/is a writer’s job to consciously use the symbols in a way that retained meaning, while adding something of the author. Eliot viewed talent as a distraction from the production of art if it was not shaped by the embers of history.. One of the facts that might come to light in this process [of criticism] is our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon the aspects of his work where he least resembles anyone else. In these aspects or parts of his work we pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the man. We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavor to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed.
I did not want to hear any of this, plus I was getting behind in my course work. I needed to push "Tradition" aside and do other course work but I continued to study it, highlighting relevant parts until it fairly glowed with its own light. I’d never considered the angles and depths that Eliot presented. For example: "To proceed to a more intelligible exposition of the relation of the poet to the past: he can neither take the past as a lump, an indiscriminate bolus, nor can he form himself wholly on one or two private admirations…" (Okay, so I was going to have to loosen my grip on Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson)…"Nor can he form himself wholly upon one preferred period. He must be aware of the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind…"(Nobody ever told me anything like that before, especially in the arts)…"a mind that changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen." (So much for "out with the old and in with…").

Eliot’s arguments helped me realize that in pursing a creative writing degree, I’d hitched the clichéd cart before the horse. Worse, I wasn’t even in the cart. I was standing behind the mare and shoving with all my might. I was trying to force my work through the sieve of society’s dictates. At best, I was producing well-written confessional pieces. But my realization that I was on the wrong path only began with Eliot’s essay. It ended with a reading of Rilke’s, Letters To A Young Poet, a book on the "further suggested reading list " for my poetry course. Rilke’s first letter, dated 1903, was in response to a poet’s need to verify his talent. The advice could have been written 100 years later—to me.

You ask yourself whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts…I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer.
I linked Eliot’s counsel for a writer to have a perception of the past and to "write not merely from his own generation in his bones," with Rilke’s lyric, "ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?" If my answer, pulled from the stillest hour, was I must write, then I must shape my work not to modern tastes, but to the standards of the masters. And that work, coming from the deepest place, would be essential. There would be no question of good or bad, only of necessity: "And if out of this turning inward …verses come, then it will not occur to you to ask anyone whether they are good verses…for you will see in them your fond natural possession, a fragment and a voice of your life". Rilke then addressed one of the most frequent problems in writing: finding a fresh way to describe everyday experiences. He wrote that flaccid writing was not from lack of training but the product of a lesser poet. If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no indifferent place. And even if you were in some prison the walls of which let none of the sounds of the world come to your senses—would you not then still have your childhood, that precious, kingly possession, that treasure-house of memories.
Studying Howellsian Realism, Eliot, and Rilke—in that order—was how I decided that creative writing should not be a degreed profession, but rather an approach. Had I read Rilke’s letters before Eliot’s essay, it would only have affirmed my original decision. In Rilke’s brief but tender discourses, I’d have found someone who understood the feeling of being fraudulent and inauthentic as a writer. After that, Eliot’s words would have seemed—how I hate to admit this—tired and pedantic. I’d have scoffed at his stiff stance and rigid morals, nodded with grudging approval over The Wasteland, taken my racing pulse after Four Quartets, and wished I’d had the money to see Cats on Broadway. But I’d have sniffed elitism, which still hovers over the pages, and moved on. As it was, I grappled the "elitist issue" for weeks. For me, the attitude of elitism, where value is ascribed, has no justification. It is a simple stand that can be pan-shaken until one nugget remains—my kind is better than your kind. The position of elitism, where value is earned, is imperfect but palpable; by this I mean people still do get excluded, but somewhat on their own terms, though again that can be pan-shaken. In the ideal sense those who don’t do the work, do not achieve the results. Eliot put it as, "[Tradition] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour." This carries with it a problem, for not everyone is in a position to have access to the material to labor with. Michelangelo would have been hard-pressed, talent or no, to create without the presentation of hunks of marble from generous or greedy benefactors. I would not be allowed to ever teach without my car that I drive to the college to get my degree. Still, although people are excluded for a variety of injustices and oversights in our system, that does not make them less valuable inherently in a position of elitism. I spent as much time as I did studying Eliot’s essay because I knew about his prejudices, and I was nervous that I was being influenced away from a moral stand to fulfill an intellectual need. It wasn’t until I was able to make this distinction that I was ready to continue, and that was the point when I read Rilke’s letters.

Rilke’s philosophy creates a space of peace in a harsh world, both exterior and interior. The grace of his words soothe me. At the same time, he makes me hungry. I want to drive a mental arm straight down into my guts and wrest out a blob of contempt, a fistful of despair, and whittle away at it until the truth that I was avoiding appears. That is the antithesis of where I started, which was to hop onto the production line, squat, and shoot out cow-sized piles of written words. After all, I’m 49 years old and pressed for time. Yet I’ll be doing myself an injustice if I devalue my life experiences. The truth is, I’m bringing a tremendous amount of hard-earned knowledge to my courses, especially in comparison with the 18 year old leaving home for the first time. When I read Virgil and Homer, I’d already witnessed the tatters and rags that Vietnam produced. When I read the Iliad, I wept with Achilleus over Patroclus. I waited along with Penelope, understanding her ache for Odysseus. I’d mourned the stillbirth of my son, the end of my marriage, my father’s death, and the betrayal of a friend. Wordsworth, Milton, Joyce, Woolf—the reading list is phenomenal and that is what it should be: a reading list. The starting point of thinking. Then students should go out and live. Maybe they’ll live hard and produce some valuable work in a decade. Maybe, like me, it will take most of a lifetime. Realistically speaking most should probably go into insurance, or medicine, or law. My worry is that a creative writing degree program will attract people who think like—well, like I thought—and churn out writers like a puppy-mill, which produces darling but damaged puppies. There are issues that I’ve not addressed, such as the skewed canon that our traditions work from and the need for it to be opened up. However, at present my main issue is that creative writing should be an approach. Writing should always be, first and foremost, about the seamless blending of ideas with language. Creative writing programs make writing only about writing.

I’d spent my married years clicking and clunking on a typewriter after hours—children asleep, husband placated, animals coiled on couches. This degree seemed to be the shortest route to get where I wanted. Yet I had it right all along. As Rilke wrote, "—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer." I didn’t know that good writing carries with it a feeling of wrong-ness, and that doubting myself was part of the whole process. I didn’t know that if I wrote what mattered then the only question would be, "Was it necessary?" and not, "Was it good?" Too much writing today is simply for pay. The words are unnecessary, and worse yet so are the ideas. If the odor of elitism wafts here, the fact is that not everybody (regardless of what a well-known writing magazine claims) can be a writer. I am in a program that supports the misguided idea that anyone can be a writer because anyone can be taught to write. I don’t believe that because I do not believe that writing is essential to everyone.

I’ve taken the long-way-round to get us home. I will continue in my studies, get my BA in Creative Writing, and go for a Masters in Education. Some of my students will go on to be wonderful writers. Some will not. I won’t know one from the other and I’ll give all of them everything I’ve got. But if any one of them ever asks me `what to do next with a writing life, my answer will be a synthesis from my readings of Eliot and Rilke. I will say, "You must go into the deepest part of you, in the darkest hour, and search for the reason that bids you write. If your answer is, because I must, then seek out the others who, so very long before you, answered the same."

Joan Malerba-Foran

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